Dan Cocks: Our store

Up and running

Posted by: Dan Cock Mon, 22 May 2017

As a retailer, if you do nothing you will decline naturally. You’ve got to do something positive just to stay still, and you have to do even more in order to grow.

We might be nine miles from the nearest town, but we can’t take that for granted because customers always have a choice – and they will be in their cars during the day anyway to take kids to school and so on, so it wouldn’t be difficult for them to continue to the shops; there are discounters in Launceston and Bude, and a good Co-op store. I saw a customer of mine in the Co-op before I started the work 18 months ago and he said that he went there because of the opening hours and the fresh food, so I knew I had to open longer hours and boost my fresh range.

So this, and all the years of reading trade magazines such as Convenience Store and visiting shows and other retailers have combined into my translation of what I need to do. When I set about redeveloping our store I knew I had to make it a destination, and by acquiring the next door house and opening our café lounge bar we are now also the village pub and the village coffee shop.

The shop is zoned for customer missions, with fresh and local in their own zones, and I’ve been inspired by places such as Gloucester services in the presentation. Our bakery and fruit & veg were already strong, but we’ve now added theatre.

When you ask ‘What are we famous for?’ the answer is pasties! So we’ve really made some noise about our pasty counter, with the cabinet interrupting shoppers on the corner of the L-shaped counter.
For the foodservice offer, we will take our time and ask customers what they want. Pasties work well by day, but we’ve already been asked for a ‘takeaway’ offer and we think there is huge demand for this. So we might look at burgers and pizzas in due course, but for now we do a ‘bring a plate’ Sunday carvery which has really taken off.

We also understand that what the community needs is a place to meet, eat and drink, and the extra space in the café lounge is available for community use as well as being part of the business; we’ve already seen toddler groups and the local council use it for meetings.

Ready to go

Posted by: Dan Cock Tue, 18 Apr 2017

After a six-month journey of planning and building, we’re finally done and are ready to open our refitted and enlarged modern c-store with a café and lounge bar. For months it seemed like we were miles away and then it all came together in the past six weeks or so. I suppose the last pieces of a jigsaw are always the easiest ones to fit in!

I’ve enjoyed project managing the whole thing and we’ve only lost eight hours trading during the entire six months, which I’m very proud of. Now it seems like a dream that I’ve suddenly woken up from and I’m wondering why was it so stressful? Why was I so tired all the time?

We are now merchandising the store and recruiting staff for the food service side, ready for a soft launch which will happen around the time that you read this. Our shop staff have been brilliant throughout the transition and it’s been great to see the staff and customers remain so excited and positive despite all the damp, draughts and dust of the building works.

We are being very careful not to over-promise and under-deliver on the catering side, so we are going to start cautiously with a basic offer such as a simple breakfast and light lunch. It’s basically going to be an enhanced version of what we offer from the shop already, but with the option of sitting down to eat.
It’s going to be a big learning curve for us to find what our customers want and how best to deliver it, but we are confident that we have modernised our business in line with the current market trends, and more importantly that we are doing the right thing for the local area by providing a café and a village bar.

We’ve had great support from Booker, and some big branded suppliers such as Coca-Cola and Red Bull have been interested in what we are doing as well: for example, we had a meeting with both off-trade and on-trade people from Carlsberg to work out how the two sides of the business we have here can work together.

It’s been an epic journey and I still feel a little stunned that it’s all here in front of me. Of course, it all needs to translate into money in the till, but as they say, if you build it, they will come!

Blurring the lines

Posted by: Dan Cock Tue, 24 Jan 2017

We finished 2016 on target in terms of our build and at a nice clean point, with most of the major structural work done in time for the Christmas break. This gave myself, Viki and the retail team a chance to focus on our customers and Christmas in the shop.

This demonstrated more than anything the reliance upon our shop and its services by our customers and just how important it is to keep trading throughout. While the store is slightly upside down and we are running a little lower than our usual stocking level, we have learned just how essential we are to people’s day-to-day lives.

Our free-to-use cash machine is a great example. We have had to remove it temporarily and, despite all the signage, are still in inundated with a stream of customers asking where the cash machine is and when it will be back! This does give us the opportunity to chat and get some feedback on our project, and without exception it has been amazing. If the responses we are receiving translate into footfall later we seem to be creating a real solution to a demand for an improved food offering, both to eat in store or to go.

Interestingly, I was on my travels last week and at a Costa in Manchester airport I was asked “Is this to sit in or to go?”. It was a phrase I observed used by all the servers and one can’t help but wonder if this, too, is a reflection of the rapidly-changing way people buy and eat food, with the old “eat in or take away?” question replaced with the words “sit” and “to go”. I would be interested to hear if any of you have had a similar experience.

The more I read and talk to fellow retailers and trade and brand partners, the more I see the blur between what we used to label retail and catering is clearly happening extremely quickly. When asked what I do, I wonder if the answer now should be “I offer people food and drink solutions to fit with their lifestyle”.

We have also started to engage with customers via Facebook and are charting our journey as we fit out and equip our kitchen and Café Lounge Bar, and shortly start work on the retail refit. This is a crucial element, and the biggest challenge I face is making the two traditional offerings sit comfortably together and complement each other.

Store vision

Posted by: Dan Cock Thu, 20 Oct 2016

I write this after having returned from a hectic few days of trade events and shows. It was great to see so many of you at these, and one message that keeps coming through is how everyone in this trade is so close and happy to support each other, which in turn makes our industry stronger.

Although my store project is pretty big and has been a few years in the making, now the build is well under way I am often being asked by customers “What are you doing?” and “What’s that new building going to be?”. My generic answer of ‘coffee shop and bar’ doesn’t really do justice to the seismic shift in consumer behaviour we are seeing, and how what we are doing is quite simply a reaction to that. In the same way that people don’t send faxes and instead use email, what we are doing at Premier Whitstone is simply reacting to the way people eat and live their lives today.

What I am really doing is redeveloping my offering to ensure I have a sustainable business model going into the next 10 years. I hope it will be a destination: a clean, sparkly and new convenient store. I hope to retain my traditional village shop roots with an array of fresh and local foods; offer a village pub where you can meet with others in our community and have a pint of locally-brewed beer; and a café where you can enjoy breakfast or lunch with friends if you don’t have time to stop take your ready to eat food out and eat on the go.

It also needs to be a service point where you can get some cash, pay a bill or post a parcel, or drop off your dry-cleaning. I have had many conversations with people about the pros and cons of ‘services’, in particular PayPoint and Post Office, and how can one truly tell if these services drive not only footfall but associated additional spend? One thing is for sure: both are more a means to an end than a huge commission generator. But with either in my store I am far more likely to become a true ‘destination’ than without.

So that’s what I envisage this new space being, but most of all it will be a new building which I can adapt should trends and my customers’ needs change. Above all, a space where I can try out ideas I have learnt from other retailers, read about in the trade press, or gleaned from a trade event.

All systems go

Posted by: Dan Cock Tue, 30 Aug 2016

So it’s been a rather hectic few weeks of behind-the-scenes work and meetings with architects and designers, which culminated in the news that we have been granted formal permission to move ahead with our plans to extend the business.

This is an excellent development and means that we can now start to get on with the works, which include converting the house next door to a café and refurbishing the existing Premier store.
Fortunately, I have most of the contractor’s prices in and agreed and they can commence almost immediately.

I had an idea in my mind of how I wanted our new destination store to look, but I’ve now had to very quickly turn that idea into one with finer details. Key elements such as the shop layout, numbers of tables and chairs have all had to be decided so that the architect and designers could create the end specification. This also meant that I have had to think hard about my menu, store identity and opening hours in order to design the kitchen specification. To say I am learning fast about catering is an understatement – I feel I am starting all over again!

It’s also vital that we ensure that the retail and catering businesses complement each other and that neither shopper mission is interrupted by the other, as on the retail side, modernising the store to meet today’s shopper missions is equally as big a part of this project.

I have been working very closely with Booker, which of course is a significant catering supplier, and this partnership is proving invaluable to me 
at the moment.

One of the most difficult issues we have had to overcome so far is agreeing the exterior fascia and branding design – it’s safe to say there are not many Premier convenience stores which also have a full-blown café/bar/farm shop element within, so getting the designs for the image and store layout right has taken a great deal of time and exploration.

We have made fantastic progress, though, and by the time I write next I am hoping construction will be well under way!

The start of a new journey

Posted by: Dan Cock Wed, 29 Jun 2016

My Name is Dan Cocks and I own Premier Whitstone Village Stores in north Cornwall (near Bude). I have been here since 2007 and, while in a rural location, I service a large catchment area and am on a great main road location between the A30 and north Devon and Cornwall. My store is about 1,100 sq ft and I have the usual mix of grocery, fresh and frozen, as well as a large non-food area, post office, Lottery, Costa Express, food to go and ATM.

It is a privilege to have been asked to write for Convenience Store and share my forthcoming journey through expansion and modernisation of my store, or future-proofing as I see it.
Like most of you, I have seen this industry experience unimaginable change and while we have benefited from a general shift back towards convenience, we have also felt some of the most difficult challenges.

I was recently fortunate enough to acquire the freehold of my premises and, more importantly, that of the adjoining property, which currently is a three-bedroomed cottage. This has given me the opportunity to dream a little on what I could potentially do with another 600sq ft or so of space and double the frontage of my existing premises.

Throughout my time as a Premier retailer, I have met many leading retailers, attended all the best events as well as proudly serving as a member of the Booker Premier Development Group. All of this has given me inspiration and an education into the store I would not only like to operate as we head towards 2020 but, more importantly, need to in order to cater for the customer of tomorrow.

Ultimately, I hope we can bring more people through the door and encourage them to spend longer in the premises, while at the same time making their life easier.

So the big question: how? Physical elements will include an in-store bakery, sit-down coffee shop, a village pub, a big focus on fresh and crucially creating a destination where customer service will be the key, with every aspect focused on the customer mission.

We are still in the planning stage, but next time I write hopefully we will have detailed mock-ups of the new layout and initial work under way.

High street survival

Posted by: Dan Cock Mon, 19 Nov 2012

So another sad week for the high street with the demise of yet another Big Name, this time Comet.

I think it is fair to say that, whilst of course they are on a much larger scale than most of us, some of the difficulties they have faced are just the same for any retailer, such as rising rents and overheads, staff costs and of course business rates.

Whilst I still believe we are in one of the best-placed forms of retail to survive these tough times, the challenges are just the same.

We have recently heard much talk of retail and indeed the high street, with Mary Portas and her high street review, and now the government’s latest bright idea, the Distressed Retail Property Taskforce, tasked with improving understanding of retail, rejuvenating towns and “saving” retail.

So what will any of this achieve? I believe one of the biggest challenges we all face is that of rising overheads and business rates. When it comes to value for money, something which we have to offer our customers, I am not sure if we get too much of it for our business rates. After all, we still have to pay for refuse collections and invest heavily to ensure we meet all of the various red tape food hygiene and health and safety rules. Surely it’s not that hard - wouldn’t it be better for local authorities and landlords to have properties occupied and maintained than nothing at all and rows of empty shops?

I am very fortunate in that our local authority recognises the importance of village shops and we therefore benefit from a reduction in our rates funded by the council tax payer. This without doubt does enable us to remain competitive, create employment and provide an essential local service. It probably is the difference between us being a viable business or not. Whilst I am not a believer in handouts and I feel a business has to stand on its own two feet, it should at the end of the day be on a level playing field.

As for what we can do and how we can compete with the “we sell everything” mults, I guess the clue is in our brand, “convenience retail”. We should always aim to offer what people need and when they need it, backed up with that great customer service we are known for. After all, that in itself will keep our customers loyal and coming back more than anything else.

Let’s just hope the government starts to deliver some real help both to us and our customers, and perhaps more importantly stop making things quite so difficult for us. We are, at the end of the day, helping people to use less fuel, creating employment and paying into the economy without really being a burden on them at all.

Lucky draw

Posted by: Dan Cock Wed, 26 Sep 2012

Well, after more than five years of waiting I am thrilled to announce that last week we finally had a Camelot lottery terminal installed in the store.

Obviously, I will continue to innovate and move with the times, but I really feel that this is now the final piece in the jigsaw. Despite being a modern, award-winning 1,200sq ft store, we have never been able to offer the National Lottery, and I’ve always felt that there was a vital piece missing in the service that we provided to our customers. For me, it was akin to not having a soft drinks chiller; an absolutely ludicrous situation for a modern-day community retailer.

Even our local Camelot representative conceded that it was crazy. Yes, we offered the Health Lottery, but quite honestly, that has never really cut the mustard for us.

So last week we couldn’t believe our luck when our shiny new terminal finally appeared – and in what was to be a rollover weekend, too!

Our customers are almost as thrilled as we are with the new addition. They don’t have to make a nine-mile round trip to the town to get a ticket, and we can finally stop having to make the complicated explanation for why we didn’t have a terminal.

The training and support have been excellent so far, and just one week in our staff are already very successfully upselling tickets at every turn.

We definitely noticed the uplift in footfall on our first draw night last Saturday, and I look forward to continuing to make the most of this most valuable and welcome service in the weeks to come.

There is no doubt that it will boost our basket spend and help our profits, so it really is a rare win-win in these challenging times.

So, credit where it’s due to Camelot for following up on its promise of these extra terminals. My terminal will definitely herald a positive change for my business.

But it’s not just great news for me. With about 6,000 of the new terminals earmarked for the independent sector I’m sure there are many others out there who are feeling as happy and complete as me right now.

Fresh thinking

Posted by: Dan Cock Fri, 13 Jul 2012

I have on many occasions spoken about the need for suppliers to not only listen but to react to the changing habits of customers, the benefit of which has been demonstrated recently with one category in particular - fresh and chilled.

In my five years of retailing, my own store has gone from two metres of chilled to more than 10, and this in part is due to the big shift towards consumers buying more fresh produce and, better still, more of it being purchased locally from the convenience sector.

I think this is in part due to tighter budgets, with consumers buying just for that day or the next few days, but also perhaps because the range in the c-sector has improved. More likely it is a bit of both, but perhaps many of you, like me, have recognised this shift and are simply stocking more chilled and fresh product.

I was recently visited by a rep from a well-known chilled food van sales business, and after many years of having their head in the sand, she said: “I’m here to listen to what your customers want and how we can cater for it and improve our service to you.” After I scratched my cheek we had a very productive meeting and, with the input of other retailers plus extensive market research, we have now started to see a better range, more products on the van, better value and pricemarking, which is just as important in chilled as any other category.

At a recent retailer focus group, when asked what’s doing well and what we need to do better, all 10 or so retailers sat around the table replied ‘chilled and fresh’!

Just as the mults such as M&S have opened in motorway services with at least 80% chilled, and supermarkets have devoted more square footage to fresh and chilled, we need to keep pushing ourselves and our suppliers to really capture this great opportunity.

Add a helping of some great local produce to the mix, and you have just given yourself another great USP. So talk to your suppliers, go to local food shows and buy more chillers - then all you need to do is shout about it.

Join the symbol family

Posted by: Dan Cock Wed, 23 May 2012

Back to business

Posted by: Dan Cock Wed, 18 Apr 2012

Happy New Year - I believe it will be

Posted by: Dan Cock Fri, 6 Jan 2012

So here we are in 2012, and a Happy New Year to you all.

Christmas 2011 for me seemed to be a reflection of the year as a whole. Without doubt we are seeing more customers, which I put down to the rising cost of fuel and  shift in customers buying only what they need for tonight and maybe the next couple of days, as opposed to the massive supermarket shops of the past. While this is good, there has been a significant shift towards value. Customers are watching their spending and multibuys and promotions seem to be doing very well. This was reflected in my recent accounts – an increase in my turnover, but a small (thankfully) reduction in my gross profit margin.

Another sector which has done well and which I intend to build on is in-store services such as DVD rental, ATM, coffee to go, PayPoint and so on. We find even things like ink cartridge and battery recycling points drive footfall.

As we do every year, we held our annual taste of Christmas open evening in December. This is our opportunity to showcase our store and let our customers try before they buy with a food and wine tasting. More than this, it also serves as an opportunity to say thank you to our customers for their valued support through the year. I believe we should all remember that customers do have a choice, and they should be thanked and perhaps rewarded for their loyalty.

2012 has been predicted as the year of opportunity for indies, and I believe this. Although I don’t agree that the display ban will drive the sales in c-stores as some predict, I do believe that 2012 will be as good a year as any for us. However, it is what you do with the opportunity that matters.

I would certainly advise that you keep reading C-Store in 2012 to keep up with current events, and as retailers let’s all try to share good practise and ideas where we can.

Predicting a 'smoking' 2012

Posted by: Dan Cock Fri, 11 Nov 2011

I’m not normally stuck for things to talk about, however when the call came through for this week’s column, I have to admit I had no burning issues on my mind. Until, that is, I heard some exciting predictions for the year ahead by Booker CEO Charles Wilson.

Speaking at a recent briefing, Wilson predicted that 2012 would be the biggest year for indies since the launch of the Lottery, mainly due to the forthcoming display ban, which he believes will bestow a £500m sales opportunity on independent retailers once the multiples go dark in April. All this talk of future opportunities helped clarify some of my own thoughts, which I, and many other retailers, have at this time of year. 

Now is not just the time for planning how to make this Christmas our busiest ever, but also look at our direction for 2012 and how we are going to ensure not just survival but growth in these tough times. I agree with Wilson that the consumer has changed, and will continue to do so in a big way. We are already seeing a massive shift towards value and, credit where credit’s due, Booker has responded well to this (as is reflected in Wilson’s dividends!) 

Of course, many retailers still believe that pricemarked packs and promotions aren’t profitable, but I firmly believe that without them you don’t have a look in. It’s the reason why a growing number of retailers are now choosing to move all their high margin food to go, impulse and alcohol to the front of their stores and grocery towards the back.

So my message to my fellow retailers is use this time to consider how you can offer exactly what your customers will be seeking in 2012, in terms of service, range and, of course, value. Once you’ve done that you’ll need to get the word out there, so think about how to market your business locally. I know I will.

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